By Renee Eastman,
Renee has been a CTS Coach since 2001. She has her undergraduate degree in Kinesiology and masters’ degree in Exercise Science. She is a 6-time Masters National Champion in cycling. She raced competitively in her 20s and 30s, and now is back for more at age “40-something.”
I never thought I’d ever be as fast again as I was in my late 20s and 30s. That’s back when I was racing as a Cat 1. I wasn’t a pro, but I had some good results along the way with several top 10s in national-level races and a few Masters National Championship titles. So how, after almost 10 years out of racing and now 47 years old, did I come back to be even better?
I am sure you clicked on this article for some super-secret interval training or the very latest and greatest on diet and nutrition. Sure, I’ve got plenty of nutrition and training advice (that’s in a second article coming soon). After all, I’ve been a coach for the last 18 years and learned a lot along the way. But that wouldn’t be an honest account of the real reasons behind my recent success. The truth is, I never intended to make a comeback to racing my bike. Instead, that has just been a happy consequence of some other changes I made in my life first.
I started out just wanting to get healthy again, feel better, and put my life on a better trajectory. Through making some significant changes in my health, wellness, and emotional skills I’ve been able to achieve more happiness and success in life, and that has spilled over to my life as an athlete. Essentially, I’m in a better place now, and I’ve stopped getting in my own way, and now I’m able to follow through with my own advice. That’s what’s led to where I am today, and it wouldn’t have been possible without first taking care of my mental health.
The Long, Slow Crash
I stopped racing in 2010 after a bad crash in the spring took me out for the rest of the season. To be honest, I was ready to move on from racing. I had been competing for nearly 20 years by then and desired a more adult lifestyle with a “real” job to make more money, buy a house, and get a dog. I did all that, but after a few years of not racing, not training, and picking up some bad lifestyle habits, I found myself miserable. I was unfit, overweight, and struggling with depression.
I can look back now and see that I’ve struggled with depression since I was a teenager. I had just been using exercise as a form of therapy without really being aware of it. The positive benefits of exercise on brain chemistry are well known, but I was no longer getting that on a consistent, high-level basis. Added to that, because I wasn’t an athlete in training anymore, I was eating poorly and drinking a lot more.
I was also starting to feel rudderless without having that identity as an athlete. I had been an athlete for my whole adult life, but I started living a life out of step with my core values, and that contributed to more bad feelings and loss of self-worth. I’ve spent the last 30 years studying fitness, training, and nutrition. My entire professional career has been based on advising people how to achieve their physical best. I was terribly conflicted telling my athletes how to make their best nutrition choices, and meanwhile I was having chips, salsa, and a bottle of wine for dinner. I was supposed to be a good example for my athletes and have all the answers to fix motivation, but I couldn’t even do that for myself.
Several times in those few years I started and stalled attempts to get back in shape, but kept failing. Failing and not following through with my plans and goals made me feel worse, and when I would feel bad, I would cope by eating or drinking more – mostly both. That led to more weight gain, less desire to work out, and worse depression.
I can’t tell you what precipitated my low point, but by the end of 2017 I realized I was at a turning point. I was either going to give up or get help. I chose the latter. Like a lot of people, I’m not usually one to ask for help, but I had also never failed at anything quite so much before. I’m the type that likes to work hard and do it on my own. I thought I could just try harder, and that the reason I was failing was just lack of discipline and work ethic.
Getting Back Up
The help I got was from reaching out to a therapist and ultimately connecting with my primary care physician to get on antidepressants. I had tried therapy before without much success. Honestly, I don’t think I was ready to address some issues or make significant changes in my behavior, and that’s why it didn’t work before. This time it clicked though. I was in a receptive place to work on myself and make changes, and finally found someone I could connect with and who really spoke my language. I was happy I gave it another try because this time I was ready to do the work.
I had been on antidepressants once before but viewed them more like a band-aid. I took them for a few months, felt a little better and then just stopped taking them. I didn’t have anything against taking them. There was no stigma or shame for me taking them, but I never thought I really needed them. I just thought everyone gets depressed. I just needed to pull up my bootstraps and tough it out. As an athlete that’s kind of a conditioned behavior. Athletic success favors those who can suffer more, and boy, was I good at suffering. I kind of cherished it and cultivated it, to my own demise. Of course, in a race if you can out-suffer your competition you can win. Without a positive outlet for my desire to suffer, I tend to put it in to more self-destructive behavior.
Those first couple of steps helped me make enough progress to dig out of the bottom of the hole, enough so that I cared enough to want to do better in life and be feel better physically. I got rid of a lot of bad habits, and drinking alcohol was number one on the list. Then I was able to start working on myself and the way I approached life. Anti-depressants weren’t a magic pill to make my life better; I had to do a lot of work to change negative thought patterns and figure out new paths toward happiness and fulfillment in life. What anti-depressants have done for me is keep me from falling into those deep valleys of darkness that hindered me from staying on track. It feels like a weight has been lifted off me and life isn’t so heavy anymore. That allows me to keep moving forward day after day.
Healthier + Happier = Faster
That’s how this whole comeback started. I started working on my mental health and that led me to work on my physical health. Working on better nutrition (and quitting drinking) helped me lose weight. Working on my relationship with food, exercise, and weight helped me keep it off. It was a few months before I started riding again, but because I was healthier, fitter (and lighter), riding didn’t suck anymore. In fact, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much I kept doing it. The more I did it the fitter I got, then before I knew it, I was getting really fit. I got to the point where I was riding so well that I figured I might as well do a race.
And that’s how we got to where we are today, just days away from Masters Nationals. It’s been 10 years since my last trip to nationals (and my last title). I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I can honestly say that I’m just happy to show up on the start line.
One of the best new habits I have is daily gratitude. That helps me appreciate where I’m at instead of where I’m not. When I think about where I was 2 years ago to where I am today, I am so grateful for my health, my fitness, and not having to suffer in depression anymore. And my dog, I’m always grateful for my dog!